Friday, February 28, 2020

Shirley Valentine – liberated, back on stage, stronger than ever, taking her stand in the sun and no longer in anyone’s shadow (Lyric Theatre until 15 March)

The Lyric Theatre have revived last year’s successful production of Shirley Valentine. Like their revamped Educating Rita, the rehearsal time for the second run has not been spent relearning the script and the performance but finetuning and enhancing the already impressive show.

Sitting in the stalls tonight I was reminded of Lisa McGee’s interview with Eamonn Mallie on UTV earlier this week when she explained that while a badly shot drama could often be improved in the edit, of a comedy script isn’t funny on set, it stands no chance of being funny on screen. For that reason, the writer of Derry Girls (in which O’Neill plays Ma Mary) is present on set every day during filming. McGee toils over the scripts and the cast have to bring them to life. Improvisation is not encouraged (though she admits that stand-up comedian Tommy Tiernan – Da Gerry, O’Neill’s on-screen husband – is sufficiently funny as a stand-up comedian to sneak in some suggestions).

The brilliance of Willy Russell’s script is even more obvious in 2020. Oisín Kearney’s edits to relocate the action from Liverpool to Belfast are still solid, and local audiences laugh knowingly at the references to Donaghadee and Bangor. But it’s Russell’s fine structure, the layers of mirroring, the quick wittedness, and comedic quality that really shines through this year.

The conceit of Shirley Valentine is that a 42-year-old woman has been taken for granted by her husband, daughter and neighbours who have made her believe that she’s mundane and boring free. She takes a stand and breaks free, heading off for a fortnight’s holiday in Greece to be in the sun for once instead of everyone else’s shadow.

Tara Lynne O’Neill uses comic timing, accents, poise, mannerisms, interaction with the audience, and stacks of brio to bring the eponymous character to life. At first trapped in her kitchen before breaking free into the Greek idyll, Patrick J O’Reilly’s complex choreography hides behind what seem like simple movements across the kitchen and the beachfront. The precision of the intermeshing of movement and dialogue is apparent when it turns out that Shirley hasn’t just cracked couple of eggs and peeled some spuds while offloading her situation to the audience, she’s actually cooked them on the oven’s rings.

Shirley is quietly pleased with her own jokes, and rightly so. O’Neill is in her element, conducting the audience’s reaction. The laughter across the auditorium seems to have doubled from last year. Every line in the first half hits its mark and the creative team have had the confidence to build in space for response rather than moving on too quickly.

Paul Keoghan’s lighting design with its sense of the recurring rising and setting of the sun is probably meant to illustrate the multi-week timeline of each act, but I’m still slightly baffled by the speed and symbolism. A very familiar yet muted soundtrack of hits from the 1980s only breaks through in the dialogue-free moments, even more evocative for the restraint shown. A stylised musical interlude foreshadows what we’ll later hear has happened in the house before the interval. The set and props offer up a whole series of surprises and alternative uses throughout the two-act play.

The brilliance of the script, performance and direction together with the obvious painstaking detail that has gone into the show’s design creates a very strong production. Shirley Valentine continues in the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 15 March. The coronavirus may deter a surge of booking flights of Greek islands, but the stirring rhetoric will echo in the heads of many theatre goers.

Photo credit: Johnny Frazer

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